by Vincent Groizeleau. French version (Comment Naval Group s’organise pour assurer la disponibilité de la flotte française ?) published online on 6 April 2020. Translated and adapted by Steve Dyson.
While Naval Group design and support teams work from home, surface combatant and submarine shipbuilding at Lorient and Cherbourg respectively is at a virtual standstill due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The situation is, however, different at the Brest and Toulon facilities responsible primarily for maintaining the French fleet. To safeguard its personnel and resources, the Navy has down-scaled operations to its main missions. These include continuous-at-sea nuclear deterrence, surveillance and security of France’s maritime approaches, sea search & rescue, and the maintenance of a French naval presence in strategic areas, notably the eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf, where Paris wishes to independently monitor the regional situation. The Navy is also contributing to operation Résilience to provide nationwide support for the fight against the pandemic. More specifically, Navy aircraft have helped to move Covid-19 patients from over-stretched hospitals to others that still had beds available. PHA-type landing helicopter docks Mistral and Dixmude have been deployed to Mayotte in the Indian Ocean and the Caribbean (i.e. the French Antilles and French Guiana), respectively.
Support and maintenance crucial says chief of staff
For the fleet to carry out their assigned missions, the support and maintenance provided by contractors and equipment suppliers must continue uninterrupted, particularly in the event of equipment failures and the like. In a message to the entire fleet on Friday 3 April, Admiral Christophe Prazuck, Chief of Staff of the French Navy, stressed the essential role played by all those involved in support and maintenance. “I extend my encouragement to all navy and merchant marine sailors working in support roles. Without you, we couldn’t carry out our current missions. I address a special thought to navy and merchant marine personnel engaged in maintenance work with industry contractors. Without you, without your dedication and work, we wouldn’t be able to undertake our missions over the coming weeks and months. We need you and the work you do to preserve our capabilities.”
Covid-19 triggers massive reorganisation
Naval Group has a front-line role to play as the prime provider of fleet through-life support. To continue its work, the group has adopted a multitude of changes over the last few weeks. At the Brest and Toulon facilities, work methods have been modified and steps taken to ensure the safety of all those who continue to work on site. This has been challenging given that the variety and volume of work undertaken had to be scaled back due not only to Covid-19 proper, but also to the government-imposed lockdown. More specifically, the changes have included working from home where possible, time off for parents to look after young children and the sick, and self-isolation for anyone with symptoms of Covid-19. As a result, the number of people working at the facility has fallen significantly. Around only one-quarter of the 2800 people who normally work at the Brest facility and the nearby Île Longue base are now on site on any given day. At Toulon, the number is down from between 1700 and 1800 to just 350.
The Brest facility, at the tip of the Brittany peninsula, is critical as its main task is the on-going maintenance of the Navy’s four nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines, or SSBNs, based at nearby Île Longue, along with the surface combatants that protect them. SSBNs and the associated frigates and minehunters ensure the deterrent force’s credibility. Some of these surface combatants are currently laid up for scheduled refits. Brest also maintains key units assigned to so-called ‘state action at sea’ missions like maritime safety & security and coastguard duties. These units include BSAM-type metropolitan support vessels Rhône and Garonne which are the first in line should a vessel call for assistance at sea or in the event of marine pollution. “We figured that lockdown was coming and started preparations immediately, making the process group wide, centralised and coherent. The top priority is, of course, to protect our employees and allow them to work remotely where practicable. Unfortunately, this is not possible in all cases. While much engineering and design work can be done from home, shipyard tasks can only be performed on site,” says Éric Balufin, the facility’s general manager. “We’ve adapted everything to the new context. Early on we closed the canteen, banned gatherings and checked that everyone was following hygiene guidelines. We also incorporated coronavirus risks into our risk reduction plans and added respiratory hygiene requirements for each operation. Where we find it difficult to comply, we review the procedures and scheduling. If that isn’t enough, we recommend additional protection like face masks.”
Watches mean fewer people aboard
The biggest challenge is how to organise work on board ships and more particularly in confined spaces where it is difficult for personnel to remain at least one metre apart. “The first step is to have fewer people aboard at any given time. Where possible, we have divided our teams into watches; specifically a morning watch and an afternoon watch with a spell between to prevent the watches from crossing each other.” Each task takes longer than usual, but Éric Balufin assures us that the solution is workable and tasks are being performed in timeframes compatible with the Navy’s needs.
Focus on priorities
Constant liaison between Naval Group and the Navy ensures that every task undertaken is in line with the client’s top priorities. “Continuous liaison enables us to tailor our efforts to the Navy’s priorities. As and when necessary, we focus additional resources on one thing or another while reviewing with the client tasks that are less urgent or that can be postponed. The thinking changes every week as the operational priorities and challenges change and as we adapt. Some tasks can be postponed while others that are essential to a vessel’s long-term mission capabilities cannot.”
Preserving critical skills
Naval Group is also addressing the issue of critical skills and how many members of staff have them. “Overall, we are fortunate in that we have sufficient personnel with a wide range of rare skills. We are nevertheless reviewing the situation activity by activity to identify highly skilled individuals whose absence, should they have to self-isolate, could pose a long-term problem.”
“No significant delays to date”
“Overall, we continue to meet the Navy’s operational needs with, at this stage, no significant delays,” says Éric Balufin, the Brest facility’s general manager. Éric attributes this positive result to the commitment and adaptability of Group teams. “These are challenging times. It’s up to us to invent new ways of doing things which, in turn, hinges on constant dialogue with our employees through their union officials. This and teamwork will enable us to maintain the current level of activity on site in Brest, supported by those working from their homes. This calls for a lot of energy. We’re getting used to new ways, but we still have to keep a close eye on the evolving situation.” Given that, to date, the pandemic has had less impact in Brittany than elsewhere, many are asking What next? “If the phenomenon accelerates and large numbers of employees are unable to work, we’ll face a new set of challenges. Fortunately, this is not the case for the moment.”
Most subcontractors still busy
Naval Group must also contend with the economic reality of a country that is largely at a standstill and the resulting tensions in its supply chains, including the closure of some suppliers. “For the moment, we haven’t encountered any serious problems for the simple reason that we have sufficient stock to last us a while yet. Some have shut down all their operations except for their facilities in Brest because they know that we are all engaged in one of the nation’s essential missions.”
In Toulon, Naval Group is responsible for the maintenance of the Navy’s Mediterranean fleet, including the Charles-de-Gaulle aircraft carrier and several nuclear-powered attack submarines, or SSNs. Overall, the measures adopted in Toulon are similar to those adopted in Brest. “We’re paying close attention to our employees’ health and take the full range of precautions before dispatching them to work aboard a ship. That’s the situation and my prime concern right now. Risk management being a key component of all our work as a defence contractor, we had little trouble adding Covid-19 to the list. We’ve analysed each task to see if it can be performed in line with respiratory hygiene rules. Sometimes we have had to add a few steps, like preliminary cleaning, or install additional washrooms so that people can wash their hands close to where they are working, or else provide hand sanitiser. Where compliance poses a problem, particularly safe distancing between employees, we introduce further measures, including working in watches and wearing face masks,” says Laurent Moser, the general manager of Naval Group’s Toulon facility. As regards masks and other personal protection equipment, or PPE, Laurent assures us that the group has enough to meet its needs. “While we, like other companies, transferred much of our stock to medical staff in Toulon and environs, we also retained sufficient for our own needs.”
“Finding solutions to meet urgent operational needs”
Health, safety and environment, or HSE squads patrol the Toulon facility to ensure compliance with the relevant hygiene rules. As in Brest, the group is focusing on its main missions. “Naval Group has worked for the French Navy for around 400 years and, despite the exceptional and unprecedented circumstances, we should be able to find solutions enabling us to meet its needs and respond to every operational emergency.” But, again as in Brest, we also have fewer resources than usual, which inevitably means that priorities must be set. “We’re working in close collaboration with the Navy to define priority tasks and rank them accordingly. For the moment, we can say that things are under control,” says Laurent.
Work on PHAs Dixmude and Mistral
While no vessels are currently laid up in Toulon for refits, air defence frigate Jean Bart is undergoing some work. On returning from Lebanon on 28 March, PHA-type landing helicopter dock Dixmude was immediately assigned to the French Caribbean as part of operation Résilience, organised by the Ministry of Armed Forces, to provide nationwide support for the fight against the pandemic. After minor repairs and loading, PHA Dixmude set sail on 3 April. Sistership PHA Mistral, also assigned to operation Résilience, spent a week in Toulon provisioning for a mission of unknown scope, scale or duration to Mayotte in the Indian Ocean. Here, Naval Group teams contributed by installing medical facilities, working on one of the motors, checking circuitry and supplying spares.
Work on submarines poses more problems
Things are more complicated when it comes to working on SSNs. Two of the five boats based at Toulon are laid up for intermediate maintenance. SSN Rubis is docked for its last intermediate quayside maintenance before it is retired at the end of the year and SSN Perle has been drydocked since last November for its final refuelling and complex overhaul (RCOH), a ten-yearly refit that calls for the complete refurbishment of all equipment and fittings, system upgrades, pressure hull inspection, and reactor refuelling. This is a major operation for Naval Group and its subcontractors as it mobilises hundreds of people and normally takes 18 months. “These overhauls are among our biggest,” says Laurent. They are particularly complicated when undertaken in compliance with Covid-19 hygiene rules given that submarines have the most confined workspaces, making it very difficult to comply with the rules using established procedures. “We have radically reduced all situations where people share a workspace. The first step is to reduce the number of people on board at any one time. We’ve cut the number to one-eighth of the usual and reorganised everything around 2/8 watches with no crossing of paths. We also impose face masks in all workspaces where it is difficult or impossible to maintain social distancing of at least one metre. We’ve studied in detail how to work and use tools and equipment so that we can continue the RCOH while ensuring the safety of the personnel. Given the special nature of submarine work, everything takes a little longer.”
Unions stop work on SSNs from 17 March
These SSN overhauls resulted in a power struggle with the CGT, a confederation of trade unions, which has asserted its members ‘right to withdraw’ under a ‘serious and imminent danger’ procedure following a meeting of the works council. The unions consider that the health and safety conditions are inadequate and demand guarantees. As a result, no Naval Group employees have set foot aboard SSN Rubis or Perle since the government ordered a general lockdown on 17 March. As no agreement could be reached, the matter has been referred to the military labour inspectorate, which is examining Naval Group’s proposed measures. Meanwhile, two independent bodies were mandated to continue the work on the SSNs. The inspectorate’s conclusions should be announced at the beginning of this week and, on that basis, negotiations are continuing with union leaders with a view to an agreement to resume work aboard the submarines. “In times like these, everyone has a right to be preoccupied and it stands to reason that strong, responsible and established social dialogue is essential. We need to keep talking and find solutions together. I’m confident that the ‘serious and imminent danger’ procedure will be lifted in the next few days after some adjustments”, said Laurent Moser.
Work continues in workshops
While work has ceased aboard SSN Perle (drydocked in the Missiessy zone of the Toulon naval base), it continues in Naval Group workshops. Most of the boat’s equipment having been removed before shipboard work was halted, the planned repairs and maintenance are proceeding ashore. Fortunately, the unloading of fuel from the boat’s nuclear reactor – a big job that takes several weeks and cannot under any circumstances be interrupted once under way – had not yet begun. Regarding SSN Rubis’ quayside maintenance – a much smaller job – Naval Group is holding discussions with the Navy to identify the priorities. As things stand, the Group considers that it should be able to make up for most of the scheduling slippage due to the lockdown.
No one, least of all Naval Group, knows how long the lockdown will last. It all depends on how the pandemic plays out, which explains why the government has not announced when or how the exit will proceed, even if it appears likely that it will do so phases. At Brest, Éric Balufin says “this is a real challenge and it depends on decisions that have yet to be announced.” Nevertheless, now is the time to start thinking about how the Group should ramp up its activities once the pandemic has passed.
The current situation is dominated by reduced capabilities, task prioritisation according to the Navy’s most urgent needs, and crisis measures. The question is: How long can it last? It is not sustainable over the medium term. It is fortunate indeed that we are currently working on only a couple of overhauls and that the Navy has the luxury of being able to set priorities without undue penalties. But this will not be the case for long as more overhauls are planned for the months ahead. For the time being, preparatory work, including engineering aspects, can still be managed by staff working from home despite the bandwidth problems due to the higher volumes of secure data exchanged. Sooner or later our teams will have to return to our shipyards. The problem is, no one knows when.
* © An article by the Mer et Marine team. No part of this work may be reproduced or used in any form without the permission of the authors.